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Moral Agency within Social Structures and Culture: A Primer on Critical Realism for Christian Ethics

Moral Agency within Social Structures and Culture: A Primer on Critical Realism for Christian Ethics


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Christian ethics has from the beginning been concerned with moral agency and culture, and Christian social ethics has acknowledged the power of social structures for the last 150 years. But ethics has yet to employ extensively the resources of that discipline that specializes in understanding structure and culture: sociology. Out of a concern to defend human freedom, Catholic social teaching has employed an individualistic approach that misdescribes the characteristics of social evil as little more than the sum of individual choices and proposes individual conversion as a remedy.
The aim of this volume is to indicate how a particularly insightful form of social science – critical realist sociology – can help Christian ethicists in their teaching and research. It briefly describes the roots of critical realism in the natural sciences, its understanding of social structure and culture, and how structure and culture have causal impact on human decisions – through freedom, not cancelling it. It makes clear how, in most cases, people “go along” with the restrictions and opportunities offered them but, when there is sufficient frustration with these, how decisions can transform both structure and culture. The analysis is then applied in more detail to provide needed illumination in three areas: the ecological crisis, economic life, and virtue ethics.
The core claims of the volume, offering an explanatory account of moral-agency-amidst-structure-and-culture for use in social ethics, would be of great interest to all those working in the field, both Catholic and Protestant.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626168015
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2020
Pages: 136
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Daniel K. Finn is a professor of theology and the William E. and Virginia Clemens Professor in Economics and the Liberal Arts at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. His books include Consumer Ethics in a Global Economy: How Buying Here Causes Injustice There (Georgetown University Press, 2019), Christian Economic Ethics: History and Implications, and The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice.

Table of Contents


Margaret S. Archer

Chapter 1: How Critical Realism Can Help Christian Social Ethics

David Cloutier

Chapter 2: How Critical Realism Can Help Catholic Social Teaching

Theodora Hawksley

Chapter 3: What Is Critical Realism?

Daniel K. Finn

Chapter 4: Social Structures

Daniel K. Finn

Chapter 5: Culture

Matthew Shadle

Chapter 6: Critical Realism and Climate Change

David Cloutier

Chapter 7: Critical Realism and the Economy

Matthew Shadle

Chapter 8: Critical Realism, Virtue Ethics, and Moral Agency

Daniel Daly


Lisa Sowle Cahill

Further Reading


About the Contributors

What People are Saying About This

John Coleman

Moral Agency Within Social Structures and Culture: A Primer on Critical Realism for Christian Ethics, edited by Daniel Finn, is a splendid and foundational work on critical realism. . . as a sociological analysis of the role of social structure and culture [and] their impact on human agency, including moral agency . . . . This is an important and foundational work which sociologists and ethicists will find truly enlightening, provocative, and helpful. I very highly recommend it.

Thomas Massaro

Faced with a world of dizzying complexity, even the most thoughtful participants in social decision making rely on unchallenged assumptions and implicit biases. We all stand to benefit from adopting an explicit meta-ethical approach to life in society. By providing a primer on the methodology of critical realism with such remarkable clarity, this ground-breaking volume supplies a much-needed foundation for constructive ethical reflection and responsible moral agency. Each chapter contains rich insight and vivid illustrations that will lead the reader reliably through the many thickets of the heavily contested ethical terrain we all face today.

Christina McRorie

This thorough but accessible introduction to critical realism is rich with concrete illustrations that offer the reader a good sense of how its theoretical perspective stands to deepen and refine social analysis in Christian ethics. A must read for scholars interested in questions about agency and structure.

Kenneth R. Himes

This is a primer in the best sense. It is an easy-to-read introduction to an important social theory that holds significant promise for Christian social ethics. In clear prose, the authors explain the basics of critical realism and illustrate in a variety of ways why it is relevant to Christian ethics. Finn and his colleagues are to be commended for advancing the conversation between theologians and social scientists in such an informed and helpful manner.

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